Teaching opposites based on gender to my six year old daughter was less complicated than establishing my identity as a woman officer in the Indian Air Force (IAF). As at least in her textbooks, gentleman was equated with a lady,even when it was used as a noun or an adjective. Its function was only to mark the gender, and pragmatically speaking, the social stature of the person. Nothing more or less.

 In the Armed Forces, she would find:

LADY OFFICER is not gender equivalent for GENTLEMAN OFFICER
WOMAN OFFICER is the gender equivalent of GENTLEMAN OFFICER
LADY= only Wives of Gentlemen Officers

My experiences with Indian Air Force

1.  AT OFFICERS’ TRAINING ACADEMIES. During the pre-commissioning training at Air Force Academy(AFA) Dundigal, Hyderabad; the cadets are given lectures on ethics, social customs and etiquette in IAF. This is where my dilemma about the fair sex’s actual identity started. “One quality which differentiates officers from all the others is : chivalry.” said one of the instructor. “In case there is a lady looking for a seat at a social gathering, while you are seated, get up and offer her the seat. That is an example of chivalry.” he said. ” Sir, what if it is my woman course mate?” the Keen Kumars of the batch trying hard to prove their alertness asked.” She is an officer,she will find one herself.” he immediately dismissed the query.

At another session on Being a Teams Person by another instructor, the status of woman course mates again troubled a few gentlemen cadets when the instructor said” Run in groups during endurance runs,if you find a woman course mate struggling to cross the pit,don’t ignore, help her. Be chivalrous.” 

 2. AT AIRMEN TRAINING INSTITUTES: As a young Education Officer I was posted to an Airmen Training Institute for instructional duties in my very first posting. I was assigned  to conduct a Training of Trainers for all instructors, including officers and Airmen. Before I started the training, they all had their doubts which they voiced in different ways about my capabilities as well as the adequacy of my training methods. My petite figure often invited doubts about my public speaking abilities, leave apart being a military leader.They felt we needed air warriors in the form of robust, tall  gentlemen who would ignite the trainees with one tight slap and a roar!With me in charge of such training, they had to mind their language as well as mannerisms. They couldn’t swear or smoke: the bachelor dandies couldn’t go on.

 To add to the discomfort was the response of young Airmen cadets under training. My duties as an officer on instructional duties encompassed sharing physical spaces with them at close proximity. I was supposed to supervise them the whole day:on the parade ground, in the classrooms, dining halls and in their billets. It was unimaginable for the curious minds and bodies of the typical Indian men coming from mostly rural parts of the country. During Night Roll calls and checks one could sense the breath of Peeping Toms at the windows/ tents. And reporting such kind of incidents would definitely mean giving people a chance for further character assassination and denial of important assignments.

Very few women officers, even though of adequate seniority got the opportunities of staying on site throughout a Field Craft Training Camp, even though being the Camp Commandants. All woman officers were strictly sent back at dawn and barred from taking part in night training activities in the camps

 3. While we were trying to prove our mettle, a big blow was the way the dismissal of Flying Officer Anjali Gupta was handled by the IAF authorities and the media. As a woman officer needs to be escorted by another woman officer, all the woman officers of the command in which she was posted were detailed for escort duties for her trial.  Free time during the trial made me realise how the good and bad eggs are all the products of the system. Being in minority a woman officer could demand and get all the unwanted attention and grow in service or pay the price.   

 For a long time during and after the trial we heard Commanding Officers telling all gentlemen officers to keep the doors of their offices open whenever a woman officer walked in to have a word with them. ” I just want you to avoid Tamasha!” they would say. Commanders started avoiding the confrontation at all and took the safe route out. In stations with a few woman officers, Commanders preferred to entrust them with staff officer duties with their wives in order to avoid any unnecessary confrontations. As a result, women officers were found working as Honorary Joint Secretaries/ Officer in charge Air Force Wives Welfare Organisations (AFWWA). 

4. In my next posting,I was everything else but a petite female during one of the final practices with the passing out batch. They were too excited at this juncture as within a few days they would become officers. They were behaving like any other unruly gang of teenagers, shouting and mimicking my and my team’s commands. As Officer in-charge, I couldn’t take it and decided to punish them for their unruly behaviour. But  physical punishments weren’t a big deal for them because they were trained to endure. So as soon as I tried the usual technique  of hurting the so-called male ego of one of the erring cadets, they all fell in line.

 But the one gentleman cadet, whose male ego was hurt badly, he followed me to my office and accused me of Man-handling him and using capital punishment in front of all everyone. He followed it with an written complaint against me as a result of which I faced an in-house inquiry. Although my superiors supported me throughout the trial, what shocked us was the inter- branch and faculty rivalry which started amongst officers when the cadet was proven guilty and I was acquitted of all charges. Gentlemen officers nearly boycotted me and my section commander in professional meetings and get togethers. 

5. The next pitfall in my journey as an officer was may be my pregnancy. As I decided to go on maternity leave, I became non-existent for my boss and he took no pains to hide his frustration with my next boss. Before I arrived at my next Air Force station, my boss was already speculating whether I would be of any help to him with my new-born baby. As if I was the first married woman officer working in Indian Air Force.

Working Environment of Women Officers in Indian Armed Forces

1. The induction of women officers in Indian Army started with the grant of Short Service Commission (SSC) for 5 years in the year 1992.  The first batch of 03 women fighter pilots in IAF was commissioned in 2016.  For many women officers commissioned in non-combat branches, it was the result of a long legal battle won in the Supreme Court and High Courts of India that they were allowed to serve permanent commission(20 years). This once again raised doubts about the real reason behind India’s decision  to induct women officers. Was it based on mere populist considerations?  Unfortunately, the incidents happening at field stations and in the offices of policy makers corroborate this fact.

2. Commanders treatment of Women Officers. Some commanders will treat them as their own children and groom them while some others let them learn the harder way. Probably, one of the reason  for this kind of treatment is that most of the woman officers of initial batches were wards of serving or retired armed forces/ other government officers. So, it was taken for granted that they were familiar to the ways of the forces. As a result, they could have it their way. The ones who were from the civil streets wanted to prove their worth as well as get accepted in their new family soon. So they too learnt to imitate their SODA( Serving Officers Daughters’ Association) counterparts
3. Let’s concentrate on  the more interesting group of her subordinates with whom the officer spends maximum time : this group will comprise of what we call the junior officers as well as the other ranks( non commissioned ranks). The junior officers will be ranging from the newly commissioned to those junior to her by few years of service. On an average, they will be graduates,bachelors and / or married ones.Some of the officers might be promoted from the ranks( the percentage is a little less) in which case they will be more difficult to tackle. In case of the other ranks, there will be Airmen (and only men) who would be only 12th graders but in their mid 40-50s; and in  few cases graduates/ pursuing graduation but as young as 20- 35 in age.
4. The older subordinates, be it officers or airmen would find it difficult for their so-called Indian Male Ego to accept the commands of a woman officer easily.  Although technically speaking, she is more qualified than most of them as woman officers entering Armed forces are graduates and/ or post graduates and some of them have even worked in civil streets before joining the force. The younger ones will be more attracted to the physical attributes and mannerisms of the woman and get easily swayed / influenced to obey/ disobey the officer. 

5.  Other Women Officers and their Moral Policing :With increase in number of women officers, one finds many women officers in a field unit/station. In such stations, senior women officers are supposed to play the BIG MOMMY role for the young ones, irrespective of their separate departments. The gentlemen officers would bring the flaws/ shortfalls of junior women officers to the notice of the senior most women officer, who then would take the job of moral policing on their shoulders. As a result, you would find junior officers getting scolded for their social gaffes: dressing sense, late night outings, social courtesies and so on in public gatherings. In such cases, the senior officers tend to forget that the process of growing up is the same for all of us. Every carefree, healthy young man or woman had enjoyed the attention and company of the the opposite sex in their youth. 

Gender at play in offences against women officers/ dismissals from service: Although the strict disciplinary values ingrained amongst the officers win over everything else but it isn’t always a cake walk for women officers.  Past history has shown that women officers are capable of commanding respect from their subordinates as well as peer group. But now that the number of women officers is slowly increasing, the number of  cases  related to insubordination as well as indiscipline will be on the rise. While the officers undergoing trials for using corrupt practices such as accepting bribes,  making fraudulent enrollments, conducting false encounters, showing favouritism in promotions and the worst, treason do not get so much media attention as the denial of kisses by a junior women officer do get.

Gender is again prominent as the reason for most of the reported cases of  women defaulters. Gentlemen officers associate the traits that are chauvinistically associated by men for women in society and piled them upon the lady officers as well. The parameters for judging the woman officers’ performance still remains her character. The whereabouts of woman officers after working hours decide whether the officer is disciplined and professional rather than her performance in the offices. While the gentlemen officers flouting the rules and good old order of the forces keep doing so in various ways without inviting any attention from the higher formations and/or the media, the women officers’ indiscipline are blown out of proportion and made to look as cases of severe attitudinal deficiencies and indiscipline. This can be proved by looking at the number and reasons of controversial cases  made public by the armed forces and the media against women officers.  In maximum cases the charges do not relate to professional lapses or commission/omission of duties. Let me share a few those made the headlines:

1. The first case of dismissal from service on grounds of indiscipline  was that of Flying Officer Anjali Gupta of IAF in 2005. She had charged her superior of making sexual remarks at her.

2.  Captain Poonam Kaur of Indian Army was awarded dismissal from service  for having illicit relationship with a driver in the battalion. She alleged her senior male officers of sexual, mental and physical harassment.

3. Lt Sushmita Chakravarty committed suicide in 2006 as she was under depression over her charter of duties which included arranging and attending late night parties.

4. Captain Neha Rawat alleged misconduct against the GOC of  her division who was dismissed from service in 2008.

5. Major Dimple Singla faced a court martial for allegedly demanding bribes during the trails by a military court of which she was a member.

Looking at the data one would definitely feel that all is not right about the discipline, train ability and integrity of women officers.But these deductions will be based on the cases which have been reported. We really don’t know what happened in those cases which never came to light. Truth is more fictional than reality, at times.

The changing social fabric of Indian Armed Forces: With increasing number of women officers being inducted in the armed forces, the problem is going to add new dimensions to it. The number of marriages within the armed forces will keep increasing and so will the requests for co-location postings. But, more importantly, the change in the social fabric due to women officers may not be easily accepted. Earlier, since the number of women officers marrying gentlemen officers was less, hence it was not so prominent. 
 I remember a colleague at an earlier station took one day leave to witness the handing over taking over ceremony of her husband to avoid wearing the uniform. If she did so, she would have to be accommodated as per her rank which was very junior to many of the officers in the husband’s unit. 
Another example of the seniority coming into play is in case of those women officers who prefer arranged marriages within the forces. One of my colleagues was constantly at the receiving end of party jokes because of her marriage to a very junior gentleman officer. It is alright if the wife is a junior officer in the social fabric, but the gentleman being the junior one is not taken so easily by the society.

 But the most controversial type still remains to be the one marriage wherein a woman officer married an Airman of non-commissioned ranks. The man is not an officer and with great difficulty he is allowed inside the officers’ mess and the residential quarters. He might be a rich Halwai’s( Sweets vendor) son, but he is not welcome here. The poor lady pays a harsh price for being  an obedient daughter. Although many others in her shoes have opted to quit and keep the drama out of their life, this one dares to face the situation courageously. And is it fair to judge her professionally on the basis of a choice made by her parents?

The fair sex in uniform has not only the gentleman in uniform to worry about but also their better halves and other woman officers. In recent times, the office politics continues at home as the wife becomes the first lady (wife) of the station.The  other wives are surprised to see this young woman in uniform guiding them and being capable of threatening her and her husband’s existence. So the social spaces too start to become unpleasant at times.

Shortfalls in Policies governing  Existence of Women Officers in Forces: I felt the organisation definitely needed to do something more to keep this section of the family happy and more productive. Some points which made me to arrive at this decision:

1. We are still stuck with the colonial ways of RAF, where a woman was seen only as a lady accompanying the gentleman officers as a wife.  Courage on the battlefield is the only aspect that we judge women with. While we forget that in peace times, it is not the same courage which helps in taking decisions or leading the troops. Women are generally considered to be physically weak and hence mentally gullible to stress and professionally inferior by her male counterparts in combat forces. Although passage of time and change in social attitudes of leaders have helped to deconstruct this notion, some still use the ‘Enemy’ and ‘Women Combatants as Prisoners of War ‘situation to question the utility of women in a combat force too. Aren’t we doubting our own training standards?
2. The entry level for women still remains after graduation. The so-called Alma mater(National Defense Academy) for the leader in making is still
not open for women.   Also there are no women inducted in ranks other than Officers. As a result, the male counterparts working as subordinates  are not trained to handle women ordering them to do things. The racial subconscious patriarchal male attitude of dominating the fair sex always comes in between trusting and  following the orders given by a woman officer.
The same patriarchal feelings get aggravated in case of   the gentlemen cadets and commanders passing out of  National Defense Academy as they don’t find women counterparts in their Alma mater. You don’t need to imagine the way a gentleman cadet from NDA who hasn’t seen a woman in his college at the peak of his puberty for 3 years will treat a woman batch mate.There are only two kinds of feelings which women generate in such officers: sexual admiration and physical protection. Gender equality or neutrality do not figure any where in such cases.That is also one of the reasons the commanders deal differently with the women officers in their units. 

3. There are practically nil administrative and logistic arrangements available to accept the gender related issues concerning woman officers.
 Basic  infrastructure such as separate toilets, changing rooms, crew rest rooms are not available at field units. Some major steps have been although taken in recent times.

Some more examples to illustrate this:

 a. Same uniforms for all officers in Indian Air Force.  Except when woman officers are in pre/post natal care stage, they all wear the same type of uniforms, overalls, caps and boots.  Maximum European countries accept the gender based differences and hence permit gender based variations, while doing staff duties, ceremonial duties and combat duties.This indirectly leads to crushing the basic personality of the woman officer and  aping the mannerisms of gentlemen officers.
b. Non flexibility of working hours ,workplaces and training patterns. Although policies governing needs of women officers in pre/post natal days exist, they are hardly practiced in field stations.Women officers are not allowed flexibility of work  places/ working hours.Since the residential areas are close by, there are no creches at the workplaces and children are not allowed inside technical areas.Although distance modules are available for in-service courses, but for the 1-month contact programmes, the physical availability of the officer is a must. 
4. Few chances for career progression. As a senior woman officer, few prime assignments and postings will be saved for one’s career progression. Sometimes,women officers keep performing the same kind of duties even after considerable amount of service. Also, very few prime in-service courses are open for the woman officers as it is felt to be a loss to service(since they would be leaving service before the gentlemen officers in most of the cases). 
5. Pre conceived notions and attitudes at play.  Many superiors find woman officers as a nuisance as in their opinion women join the forces to get married to the gentlemen officers and enjoy the social status of being a brother officer’s wife while getting the salary of a commissioned officer them self. Some others feel, they have only ceremonial roles to play like being showcased as a Parade commander during VIP visits or as Staff Officers to wives of senior officers or at the best to anchor/sing/dance at gala events such as Air Force Band show or Air Force day parties.

 Prior to the Supreme Court judgement,women officers were considered as a short term threat by the Gentlemen officers. Now they are much antagonised as suddenly women officers are also fighting with them for promotions to higher posts. More than healthy competition with their peers, there is a feeling of dominating/ protecting the fair sex in uniform.

Concluding Thoughts

After 70 years of Independence the Indian society has accepted women scientists,politicians,wrestlers,boxers and cricketers; but the doubt about the performance of women in uniform still remains. Late night parties, graveyard shifts and overseas assignments are no more a taboo for Indian women in civil streets. In the times of global terrorism where the Naxalite/ Maoist/terrorist organisations have also started training women to lead their combat assignments,why is the Military Leadership of India so hell bend on the incompetence of women in combatant roles?

The general argument made by most of the military commanders  in front of media / human rights commissions is: Its not at all about woman’s rights/ equality of gender. It is about combat effectiveness, war readiness and national security. Imagine what would happen if a fragile woman pilot lands into enemy territories! 

I always wondered:  The military leadership was okay with the One woman :Mrs Indira Gandhi, wearing a sari, not chosen by SSB, political leader and least experienced in military matters giving them orders as the Prime Minister at the peak of maximum wars India fought with its neighbours but they were not ready to accept the leadership skills of one of their own, physically and mentally well-trained, well-groomed woman officer who was only going to perform mere support duties and that too in     non-border areas!


 Well, being a hardcore optimist, I can’t wait to see them fighting for their country, walking into the steps of the Marshal with their courageous curves, pigtails and the short assertive steps to touch the sky with glory. 

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